You start with only a handful of cards in front of a massive table, trapped in a dark room awaiting to be discovered. All of the sudden the clock starts ticking, and your curiosity rises more and more. You begin to dream, to aspire, to try to meet new unimaginable worlds. Sacrificing everything around you for the cause towards the path of creating own cult, driven mad by knowledge. And even in the afterlife all your findings and the mark you left in the world endures through time.
Cultist Simulator is a narrative driven deck-building game. I’m not kidding. In the recent rise of this sub-genre, mostly applied to titles that have roguelike elements, Weather Factory maintains the premise of a certain progress in each playthrough, but takes it to a unique level that I have never seen before. It’s not about upgrading your abilities or gaining an item for a next run. Here, storytelling leads to a series of on-going tales from the very moment we start the game. In Cultist Simulator, the world is shaped by your actions.
An aspirant trying to earn a living with her paintings finds out about a mysterious book store run by Morland’s. A physician starts getting obsessed with the notes that were found with the body after she perished. A detective investigates everything in the background, trying to understand why so many people in town are disappearing. But the evidence is too much to bear, and despair overcomes the mind. In another district, a boy mourns the death of his papa, and in inheritance finds more than just wealth. A journal describing everything his father did for the cult. The clock never stops ticking. And you get to experience every story from the eyes of each protagonist.
Cards belong to different classes of objects, literature and schools. Every single one of them has a purpose, and in most cases, they can be used in different ways thanks to verbs. Work, Study, Dream, Talk and Explore are the main nodes that will set each action in motion. And, at the same time, everything you do takes a certain amount of time that can change on the run depending on what’s happening. Additionally there are four currencies: your health, the money in your pockets, your passion, and whatever is left from your reason.
These nodes carry a different value, but they are all hosts of situations that occur simultaneously. Working usually takes 60 seconds, the general Time is there to ensure the collecting of your funds when it reaches 0, in order to maintain yourself alive for another day and prevent starvation, but sickness is always around the corner. At the same time, you might be translating your recent purchase from Morland after finally studying enough to be comfortable with the knowledge of foreign languages. Or you might be stranded in a dream, starting to get a test of what a mind is capable of after finding out about unlimited power.
But not everything happens in your room. Words about your activities are spread throughout the city, and the card Notoriety appears. A chief assigns the case to a detective, and suddenly the people who are part of you cult are being questioned by the law. Do you send someone after the detective to attempt finishing with their research with brute force? or do you attempt to trap and lock them in your place and make use of them for a ritual?
Explorations have many different steps that happen in real-time, often demanding more funds or people from your cult to lend a hand. The rewards might be tempting, but the kind of stuff your pawns see in those places can barely be explained. Something that intrigued me is how the game tells you that even if an expedition fails, you can recover the funds and try again, showcasing how disposable your pawns can be. Despite everything, they are bound to the cult and their beliefs, until the very end. They can also be “upgraded” into different ranks and roles within the cult, or sacrificed entirely to serve a greater purpose.
It’s hard to comprehend the rush behind every action and timer in Cultist Simulator. Without realizing it, the table will quickly get swarmed with different cards, some bound to vanish unless they are used in the right time and others that will remain there for a later use, such as scholarships, persons of interesting looking to arrange a deal or places you can visit regularly. There are specific nodes that will automatically absorb a card, but not having the needed one might lead to an unfortunate situation or even ending the playthrough completely.
A sickness will use a Health card to prevent it from being mortal, but will result in an affliction instead, which can be treated by dreaming and using a complementary card to cure it. Studying Passion grants a Glimmering card, and two of them can multiply the former. Cultist Simulator it’s feels like a pit of endless multitasking, forcing you to keep your eyes on dozens of cards at the same time, waiting for clocks to stop ticking to obtain new cards and continue your tasks. Thankfully there is a pause button that can freeze time for as long as you want, which is perfect to read descriptions, plan your next movements in risk situations or even taking or placing cards into slots.
As dying has a purpose in the game, I never got tired of embracing a new character after I perished. There’s a brief description that tells how exactly a story ended and the reason, which grants a subtle but meaningful lesson for the next time around. But it’s in the way that Cultist Simulator strings together so many names and situations that stand out among the rest, giving death a different meaning.
There are hundreds of actions and dozens of outcomes in Cultist Simulator, but it can become overwhelming at times, abandoning the premise of experimentation. It’s present, yes, but it’s easy to feel like you hit a wall until you understand where you are supposed to go or the missing action you weren’t considering. Trial and error is key, and a necessary process towards fully comprehending the game mechanics and its boundaries.
But this complexity is justified by carefully crafted words in every card, describing each situation with only the needed amount of details, but told in such way that my mind got fed enough to imagine the whole picture. Days have passed since I started playing and I still can’t stop thinking the achievement of presenting interesting and meaningful lore in just a couple of lines and with only a handful of images.
It’s so easy to get lost into the world. The multitasking routine is addictive, the art style and design lend their hands to you to walk among them, and the soundtrack is the perfect companion. Cultist Simulator will always remain as a really game to explain and comprehend, but those willing to dive into the universe will find one of the most original concepts in years. It introduces a new era in storytelling, inviting players to push the boundaries of their imagination to unknown places.
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Make sure to visit the official site for more information.